Filming Glow-in-the-Dark Critters

Yes, there are real glow-in-the-dark critters in California. Filmmaker Owen Bissell joined entomologist Dr. Paul Marek to showcase the hundreds of bioluminescent millipedes (Motyxia sequoiae) in the Sierra Nevada. It was the first time this species was filmed in the wild.

Bissell had never tried to film bioluminescence before but he was excited for the technical challenge of filming tiny creatures in a remote location at night. “Prior to the shoot, we did a lot of research to see if we were even going to be able to capture the light that is coming off of them.”

Marek showed Bissell some still images of the millipedes ahead of time, so he knew they were going to need a camera that was very sensitive to light. “With technology getting better every year, we were able to select the camera that allowed us to shoot at very high ISOs and see the millipedes in a way that I felt did them justice. They are really cool critters and you want to be able to show them in a way that respects how cool they are.” The millipedes are very difficult to spot during the day, but at night they squirt cyanide and other toxins from their bodies, which give off a greenish glow and repel nocturnal predators.

Marek and his colleagues were trying to figure out how the millipedes’ nighttime glow evolved. They measured the brightness across the different species of Motyxia and found a unique evolutionary story. A related millipede, the Xystocheir bistipita species, was going to be the control group for the research because it was thought to be non-luminescent. But Marek was surprised to discover that not only do the ten species of millipedes in the Motyxia genus glow, but the Xystocheir bistipita species as well.

The scientists now think these millipedes' greenish light is the result of their bodies' response to heat stress at lower elevations. As the species moved up the Sierra Nevada Mountains, it later evolved into a warning signal. Read more about the discovery of how the millipedes got their glow here and watch more of Bissell's footage of the millipedes.

Paul Marek is a National Geographic Society Expeditions Council grantee

PRODUCER: Carolyn Barnwell
EDITOR: Andrew La Fontaine
SERIES PRODUCERS: Chris Mattle and Jennifer Shoemaker
GRAPHICS: Chris Mattle